ATHENS – At loggerheads with Greece's plan to keep refugees and migrants confined in camps, European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson ran into protesters on the island of Lesbos where she went to promote new centers she said would let them move about.
Johansson was met by hundreds of angry local residents, who gathered outside the building where she was set to meet with mayors, North Aegean Regional Governor Kostas Moutzouris and Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi.
The protesters held banners proclaiming, “no to structures on the island.” And they chanted: “Neither in Lesbos, nor anywhere, we will not turn Greek islands into prisons,” according to Politico.
The EU is going to put up 250 million euros ($293.53 million) to build facilities on Greek islands near Turkey, which has – in violation of a 2016 swap deal with the bloc – allowed human traffickers to keep sending refugees and migrants.
The protesters and Moutzouris don't want a new facility to replace a hastily built tent city erected after protesters angry over COVID-19 health restrictions burned down the notorious Moria detention camp.
He came out of regional authorities’ building to wave to the crowd, and announce that he had called off the meeting and saying the camps won't be built, drawing big applause, the report said.
While the EU said that the numbers of migrants and refugees coming to Greece fell to just 16,000 in 2020 during the pandemic, islanders and officials are weary of dealing with the problem and want them moved to mainland camps.
Moutzouris said of Johansson's visit that, “It is clear that she is not taking into account the local population and was here to discuss already received decisions,” which he and the residents rejected.
He was also unhappy with her insistence the new migrant camps would be “open” facilities, which residents and locals don't want but in a news conference with Mitarachi, she said the new camps “are not going to be closed because we do not detain people for being migrants.”
She did note though there would be a controlled exit system for those who aren’t allowed to stay in Europe. “Even if you don’t have the right to stay in the European Union, you are a human being, you have rights, you have dignity,” Johansson said.
She also pushed the government to investigate repeated claims by human rights groups and activists about alleged pushbacks of refugees and migrants across the land border and seas which was already denied.
“We need to protect our external borders and we need fundamental rights and this goes hand-in-hand, it’s not a contradiction,” she said.
Mitarachi said there haven't been pushbacks but added that“countries have borders and there are rules and regulations (about) how the competent authorities must exercise and execute their constitutional obligations to protect them.”
He said there are about 14,000 migrants in camps on the five Aegean islands, down from about 42,000 in 2019. About 58,000 are in camps across Greece, down from 92,000 in 2019.
“I think the Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigating these alleged pushbacks,” she said, the news agency Reuters reported.
“There are some specific cases that I really think need to be looked into closer,” she said as the European Parliament has been pressing to find out more about the role of the EU border agency Frontex in alleged pushbacks.
Mitarachi added that, “We strongly deny that the Greek coast guard has ever been involved in pushbacks,” adding that independent investigations, including by the Greek judiciary and Frontex, had not found violations.
“What we have been seeing in Europe the last six years is the lack of a Europeanized migration policy, and that means that member states at our external borders have been under huge pressure,” Johansson said.
Johansson said she understood “that everybody has a limit to their patience, and I understand that this limit is close” in some areas, such as Lesbos.
“We are addressing the shortcomings in the European migration system. One of the most important things is to avoid irregular departure,” Johansson said, referring to asylum-seekers leaving Turkish shores.
Johansson also stressed that Turkey should resume accepting those who have been slated for return but suspended that part of the deal and wasn't punished for doing so.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)